Friday, November 08, 2013

Scam City Marrakech

MARRAKECH is an assault to the senses.

It started with a greeting -- the cool breeze from the snow-capped Atlas mountains as soon as I landed at the Menara airport. Then came the view of that iconic façade made famous by the second installment of Sex and the City movie that unjustly identified Menara and the whole of Marrakesh as Abu Dhabi.

The sensory feast went on when I stepped out of bus No. 19 after a 20-minute ride from the airport, and I walked inside the heart of the old walled city, the medina.

From the bus stop to the market or souk, I found the ever-present orange juice stalls, shops selling herbs and bold-colored powdered spices shaped in tall cones, stores lined with hanging metal and stained glass lanterns, and tables teeming with leather goods fresh out of the tannery. And as I blended with the hustle and bustle of Arabs in this North African kingdom, I heard the distinct sound of Moroccan wind instruments and bongos fused with pop rhythms being played right in the middle of the marketplace.

And when night fell, at the main square in front of the souk, I braved the exotic fare of chicken tangine cooked with vegetables and spices in conical clay pots, fresh olives and escargot soup at one of the food stalls that make up the night market.

I could hear the snake charmers, the story tellers, and the freak show artists trying to lure tourists to check out their acts.

It is probably this seemingly “old world,” exotic, and mysterious culture that draws millions of tourists from all over the world to Marrakesh. I for one was one of the curious tourists who made my way from Madrid to the old capital of Morocco -- once the crossroads of cultures and a major trading post in North Africa and Europe -- to experience a place that is practically unheard of by many Filipinos.

Assault to the pocket
But while the colorful culture can be an assault to the senses, the tourist trap that is the medina has also become an assault to tourists’ pockets.

In fact, had it not for the TV series Scam City, I would not have realized that I was scammed and ripped off in many transactions during my four-day stay there.

Based from my experience and the modus operandi that Scam City revealed in its episode on Marrakesh, the scammers in the medina will surely give Quiapo and Divisoria snatchers a run for their money.

I already had a clue when a man approached me at the bus station at Place D’Jemaa el-Fnaa and offered me “help” in locating my hostel.

Tired from an early morning flight from Madrid, I accepted the offer considering that I was facing a “chaotic” place not too different from wet markets in the Philippines, after having been spoiled in “orderly” Europe.

After a 15-minute walk, we found my hostel but he asked me for money -- I gave an amount equivalent to about ₱50.

“So asking for directions here isn’t free?” I muttered to Victor, a Brazilian who happened to be on the same plane I was in and who was also billeted in the same hostel where I was booked.

“I already guessed how they work here that’s why I walked alone,” he said.

The way inside the souk can be unpleasant as store keepers tend to be intrusive with the way they ask passersby to check out their goods.

As Morocco is not a common destination for Southeast Asians, storekeepers called me by different names as I walked through the maze that is the souk -- Mr. Malaysia, Mr. Korea, ni hao China, arigatu Japan.

It was even difficult to take pictures of the spices and other goods, as a mere look would prompt the storekeepers to force you to buy from them!

A teenaged boy approached me and offered to help me back to the main square when he guessed that I lost my way inside the souk. When we reached what seemed to be a shortcut to the square, he forced his hand into my shirt pocket to take all my coins after I said that I didn’t have any dirhams left (thank God my wallet was actually empty at the time!). But worse, the boy had brought me to a dead end that was nowhere near the main square.

Dangers in the medina

Conor Woodman, host and producer of Scam City, made himself a prey to the scams in order to be able to demonstrate the dangers and annoyances one can experience within the medina.

Purchase what storekeepers say are antique rugs for 2,000 Moroccan dirhams (about ₱10,500), then learn that experts and legitimate sellers in the modern city outside the medina say these are not really antique and should cost only 500-700 Moroccan dirhams (about ₱2,600-3,700).

At the Jemaa el-Fnaa square, card players entice onlookers to place bets where one is sure to lose big time.

A few steps from the flock of card players are the snake charmers, tunic-clad men who force tourists to play with the poor reptiles -- an activity that would make a 300-Moroccan dirham (about ₱1,600) dent on the backpacker’s budget.

“For good luck! For good sex!” the scammers would tell tourists.

Then come the Gnawa or the traditional North African dancers, who dance and play traditional Moroccan instruments around the unsuspecting travelers. They offer their tasseled headdress to the tourists as “a gift” but after a few clicks of the camera, the prey will be charged 200-Moroccan dirham (a little over ₱1,000).

And probably the last to force themselves into the unwitting tourists are the guys carrying chained malnourished monkeys, who offer photo ops for 100 Moroccan dirhams (about ₱500).

Mr. Woodman said these guys make up a small-time yet organized group in Marrakesh.

Those who have been there couldn’t agree more.

“They work together dude, you can see that in their eyes!” a viewer of the Scam City episode posted on YouTube wrote in the comments section.

A Moroccan asking for money for showing me the way to my hostel is not unusual, with another viewer of the same video on YouTube saying:

“Even the dentist guy on that square wanted money after I took a pic of him sitting. A big ‘f*ck you!’ he got.”

These are only some of the annoyances that one can experience when roaming around Marrakesh. But should this discourage travelers from experiencing what the place can offer? Not at all.

Nice people
Moroccans can be warm people. For instance the attendants at my hostel spoke to me so politely and

reassuringly even if they could only utter a mix of French and Arabic and nary a single English word.

Some storekeepers at the souk, despite being so intrusive, will even offer you thé à la menthe (Moroccan mint tea) even if you just bought a small trinket from them.

Prices may be jacked up with the souk being the tourist trap that it is, but haggling Pinoy tiangge (flea market) style isn’t prohibited. The adventurous tourist will be rewarded with unusual finds ranging from camel skin leather bags, to bold-colored scarves, to an extra cup of freshly squeezed orange juice.

A trip to this historical city should by itself be an achievement.

Considering the dangers and annoyances that I faced and those that I managed to avoid, I should have the license to tell my grandchildren someday, “I survived Marrakesh.”

*This story originally appeared at the Nov. 8-9, 2013 edition of BusinessWorld Weekender. While I took the photos, copyright is already BusinessWorld's.


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